College basketball is such a strange, amorphous thing right now, what with the annual defection of totally unproven commodities to the NBA, but even in that context it was going to be difficult to project Arkansas's 2015-16 season.
The negatives that piled up from the end of the Hogs' encouraging 27-win prior campaign were extensive. Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls bailed for draft money and misfortune that befell the latter meant that only half of that duo decided right. Rashad Madden's up-and-down eligibility ended. Anton Beard and Jacorey Williams got popped for a felonious forgery endeavor, and that seemed to spell the ends of their careers, but the far more valuable commodity, Beard, struck a deal and will be back on the court under a microscope soon.
The Hogs brought in two particularly high-end recruits, Jimmy Whitt and Ted Kupita. Whitt has been mercurial but clearly has a ton of skill, while Kupita was never going to be eligible and looked like one of those semi-regular recruiting disasters along the lines of Craig Tyson, Kareem Poole, Marcus Saxon, and such — a big-ticket product whose qualification was suspect from the outset. Dusty Hannahs, a Little Rock product, was going to be eligible after transferring in from Texas Tech, but his viability as a go-to threat was unknown, his long-range acumen notwithstanding.
As the season neared, this was the bleak picture: The Hogs were going to be dependent on the capable but erratic Anthlon Bell and Hannahs for perimeter punch, and reliant on the interior scoring of Moses Kingsley, who had never really exhibited that skill. The newcomers were sorely needed. And, oh yeah, Kentucky and Florida were in full reload mode while the likes of Texas A&M, LSU and Ole Miss all appeared to be on the rise as well, in a league that has just recently shown signs of across-the-board resurgence to national prominence.
The results thus far? Five wins in nine games. Nothing spectacular, but also nothing too damning on the surface. Probably the lowest moment came when the Hogs blew all of a big lead against Stanford in the waning minutes and took a narrow loss. The other defeats at the hands of Akron, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech were close enough to not quarrel over, but again, those are three unranked teams that do not impress anyone at this juncture. Nevertheless, the Razorbacks have demonstrated some resiliency and fight lately, namely a couple of easy home victories the last week, and now Beard's return is forthcoming.
Mike Anderson is still in an odd place, speaking solely of his standing as program rebuilder. The progress has been slow and measured, but frustrating, too. When he was hired, the expectation was that he would end this ongoing, maddening cycle of baffling losses and in-state recruiting failures. So far, the strikeout on Malik Monk looks and feels near-fatal in its gravity, even if Monk spends a matter of months in Lexington, Ky. He was an absolute hard target and would've nicely complemented some well-regarded incoming junior college talent. Now the Hogs are in the position of trying to stay afloat now for next fall, and hoping that Hannahs, Beard, Kingsley and Whitt make up an excellent nucleus of experience and depth for that group.
The now is not as bad as we admittedly feared, though. Jabril Durham doesn't score much, but he's a competent on-court presence in Beard's absence, and his progress as a leader cannot hurt a team lacking it. Manuale Watkins is also putting in some of the same steady help he gave last fall, and even Willy Kouassi and Keaton Miles are having some occasionally bright moments. It's a team that has the appearance of being largely role players trying to excel as breadwinners, and whether it will do so in January and beyond is as big of a mystery as you might expect from a team with these components.
The next two or three weeks will be a great gauge for how well this ragtag unit coalesces. Beard's inclusion is, of course, the great determinant. A few years ago, Courtney Fortson arrived late due to a discipline issue and while he played well on an individual basis, the Pelphrey-helmed team was already a careening wreck and Fortson was too me-first in trying to rescue the outliers.
Going into the holidays, the scheduling again gives the team a shot to move its needle a little harder in the right direction. Then SEC play commences, and a team on a winning run can and should emerge strongly against that slate. But as it always seems with an Anderson team, the fragility of the whole unit seems evident, too.